Geeks Build BelongingsFinder Website For Tsunami Victims

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A new website to help tsunami victims in Japan locate their lost belongings has been built in just two days. BelongingsFinder is a long-term humanitarian project set up in a single weekend by a UK-based team of geeks and entrepreneurs.

Last Friday, when the earthquake struck, Italian businessman and founder of startups Stefano Orowitsch arrived at a Startup Weekend event in Cambridge, England, originally planning to build a mobile app for his Netherlands-based car rental company StudentCar. But the earthquake and tsunami made him throw those plans away.

“There was no way I could ignore it,” he said. “I knew I had to use the Startup Weekend to build something that would help people in Japan. It was now or never.”

After some research, Stefano and his team made a discovery: there is a 1400-year-old law in Japan, which declares that no individual may hold on to any found item for more than five days.

After five days, they are obliged by law to hand in anything they’ve found to a police station, or to private companies which have been set up in recent years to provide the storage space necessary for a nation’s lost belongings.

In Tokyo alone in 2002, $23 million worth of cash was handed in as a result of this law.

“That’s how honest people are in Japan,” said Orowitsch.

Much of the infrastructure that maintains this system has been washed away in north-eastern Japan, so Orowitsch and his team of developers decided to build something that could help. BelongingsFinder was the result.

Built in a matter of hours, it allows anyone to post details of something they’ve found, or something they’ve lost. Over time – and Orowitsch is keen to stress that this is a long-term, non-profit project – it will build up a database of objects and help reunite them with their original owners.

“We know that many people have had everything, their whole life, swept away and destroyed. We know we can’t replace that. But if we can return something as simple as a wedding ring to a woman who has lost her husband, it will be worth it,” he said.

Although the site is live now, it hasn’t been given an official launch in Japan yet. Orowitsch understands that people there have enough to deal with for the time being, and is happy to wait until the time is right.

“We are working on upgrades and improvements to the initial site. It will still be there a year from now, when people need it.”